Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

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consumer electronicsI freeze as I see the screen. A panic rises in my head. This can’t be! Immediately, control kicks in. Breathe. Think. Act. Still in denial of what I see, I hard reboot the laptop.

I’m surprised by how calm I am as the display lights up and the lines are still flickering across the screen. I locate a crack on the side of the LCD. In my head I go through my packing routine. Yes, this end usually sits at the bottom of my backpack. So I did damage the laptop when I slipped on the ice earlier that morning. Why now?

I take a deep breath. Beautiful Full HD display, barely a year old; now it is toast. Calm, but gutted I reach for my phone and hack in an email to Mark. I won’t make my deadline today.

Ironically, this episode happened during final revisions of the article you are now reading.

Introduction

Every year, consumer electronics exhibitions around the world present new high tech devices; expensive toys that come with many promises. They aim to make our lives easier, more fun, super connected, and of course they are status symbols. Moreover, they are an electronic manifestation of the ideals that drive our society: bigger, better, faster, more.

On the bright side, high-end electronics demonstrate advanced engineering and stunning design solutions. However, novelty tends to fade quickly. Only a few months later the hardware is outdated, the design is stale, and the shelves are stocked with fresh models. Nothing ages as quickly and permanently as consumer electronics.

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Gadgets get discarded at ever faster rates and account for millions of tons of consumer electronic waste every year. To feed production, more and more resources are claimed and we are beginning to suffer from the immense burden on the natural and social environment.

What is the purpose of driving the technological advancement? Does it help us create something that will last? Where are we going so fast? We don’t know. Or do we?

The Bonding

Jane* carefully places the laptop on her living room table. It’s a used HP that a friend gave to her. Jane is excited about the prospect of using the Internet from her wing chair, rather than having to crunch in front of the old desktop in her bedroom.

Jane has family all over the country and many friends around the world. She loves to stay in touch with them and finds that the Internet is a blessing. One of her grandchildren set her up on Facebook, but she found it too confusing. However, she happily uses Skype, email, browses the Internet, plays games, and does online banking. Now she curiously watches as I try to connect the laptop to her WiFi.

consumer electronics
Image credits: Woman with Laptop via Shutterstock

For its owner, a new gadget is not just a financial investment; it also is a major time and not least an emotional commitment. Something new enters your life, you let it in, spend hours setting it up, trust it with personal data, dress it up with accessories, and share your most intimate experiences with it. It becomes an essential part of your daily routine and a bearer of secrets. Just imagine the horror if you lost your smartphone! We deeply depend on our tools and, even more so, we become emotionally attached.

The more we depend on our gadgets and the less we actually understand them, the more attached we tend to become. Jane for example uses her computer only for the most basic tasks. She is not well versed in technology and although she is careful, she often needs help fixing small bugs. Jane is a confirmed optimist and has many hobbies that keep her busy away from the computer, but she does get slightly frustrated when she is cut off from her far away friends.

Jane grew up in a small isolated town. Goods and the mail were delivered only once a week, the phone line that eventually came was precious. Being one of the younger siblings, she received a lot of hand-me-downs. Although she now can afford a more luxurious lifestyle, she still treats all her belongings with great care and believes in using things until they break. When things do perish, Jane wonders why it is so much cheaper to replace them with something new. And especially with consumer electronics, repairing is rarely an option. Jane shrugs it off as “that’s the way things are.”

From an engineer who learned his profession in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), I learn his peers prided themselves in producing only the best quality and they built devices that would last for decades. In principle, that is not different from engineers elsewhere. However, material resources were scarce and what these people did have was time; endless amounts of time.

We worked on the first computer-operated tuner of the GDR. A microprocessor that converted the signal from analog to digital produced a 50 KHz error. The device was examined in detail and eventually someone identified the component that caused the error. A different type of plastic had changed the inductance of a coil. Changing back to the original plastic corrected the error.” – Norbert Storch

consumer electronics history
Image credits: Computer Engineer via Shutterstock

Things are different today. Companies cannot afford to track down defects all the time; where possible quick fixes are applied. And the tools are different, too. A hardware loss today is often equal to an irreversible loss of personal data, including emotional pieces like photos and private messages.

Devices like laptops or smartphones are much more integral parts of our lives than the electronics of the past. We are in an intimate relationship with technology. Recall the last time you were saving up for and finally bought a new gadget. Wasn’t it a little like this: You fell in love with a sexy design and promising features. Once you held it in your hands it was the most exciting thing you ever had. You got to know the new one through rose-colored glasses, you interacted with it every day, constantly trusting it with more private information, thereby bonding and deepening your relationship. And maybe you are still in the honeymoon phase with that latest acquisition of yours. But consider this: should serious issues surface, you are now committed.

Replacing a laptop or a phone then is a lot like breaking up. As issues deepen, you hold on and try to fix them. However, no counseling in the world can mend broken hardware or bridge serious software or hardware incompatibilities. There comes a time when you must part with your gadget. You know that migrating data will be a painful process. But once you get excited about the new one in your life, it’s all forgotten. You’re in love and everything comes easily.

The tendency to bond, even with lifeless objects, is very human and has served us well. Jane for example has had her desktop computer for many years. It’s a piece of her home and part of her daily routine. If everything kept working reliably, she would never see the need to replace it. Such loyalty to a piece of hardware, however, can be a problem, both for the user and for companies that must sell to stay in business.

Built to Break?

What keeps our economy going is the perpetual transfer of money. Companies inherently depend on customers to buy their products. One questionable technique that has been said to sustain consumption is designing products to break prematurely.

The technical term for this approach is planned obsolescence. It describes an approach to consciously limit product lifetime through the use of weak spots or inferior material. The concept can also be extended to new software no longer running on older hardware or vice versa. Planned obsolescence guarantees lasting consumption and a growing economy at the expense of consumers.

Countless stories of products designed to break have been circulating. In fact, there is a prominent and well documented case: the light bulb. It is the first known victim of planned obsolescence, as well as the subject of the world’s first cartel agreement. If you want to explore this topic more deeply, nothing will tell the story better than the documentary Pyramids of Waste: The Lightbulb Conspiracy.

The idea of planned obsolescence made me curious. Sure enough, I have a friend whose printer had stopped working out of the blue after three years of faithful service. Neil earns a living in IT and has been fixing people’s computers for years. His device had been printing flawlessly until it suddenly quit.

I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, so I called customer support.” Neil is redirected to a repair center in Berlin. He explains what the issue is and when mentioning the printer model, the lady on the other end quickly tells him that they are not able to fix the device. Neil is stunned. Had he not been sent to the repair center by the manufacturer itself?

Neil remains persistent: “Why is it not possible to repair the device? You haven’t even seen it!” “This model is not meant to be repaired. The manufacturer does not produce any spare parts for it” the voice on the other end responds. She recommends Neil to take the printer to a recycling station and buy a new one.

Neil challenges her: “So which current printer model would be repairable?” Slightly unsettled, the support lady admits “I am not authorized to tell you.” And then she offers a surprisingly simple explanation.

consumer electronics history
Image credits: E-Waste via Shutterstock

When Neil subsequently called the printer company to confirm this information and complain, they were surprised that the repair center had provided him with such forthright explanation and advice. Eventually, Neil received the following email, which confirmed the information given by the repair center:

It is indeed true that for some of our products we do not produce spare parts or keep them in stock.

The production of spare parts, their storage, and repair costs are equal to the costs of producing a new unit. Therefore the provision of spare parts is not economical compared to the procurement of a new product.

Presently, all products of the segment A4 inkjet printer (…) will not be repaired, but will be exchanged in case of a defect. – global  producer of inkjet printers

We don’t know why the printer broke and chances are it died of natural causes. However, the fact that high-end consumer electronics are not designed to be repaired, further reveals the troubled mindset at the core of the issue.

The Role of Industrial Design

I began wondering whether there was method to the madness and turned to a few of the people responsible for product design: industrial designers.

Sijme Geurts is a young industrial designer from the Netherlands. I meet him on Skype and, since I have known him for some time, am direct in asking him what he knows about planned obsolescence. “It was not a topic during my studies” he says. But Sijme explains that industrial designers routinely estimate how long an item will be used. Not surprisingly, they can design a product to last for a long time or break much sooner.

consumer electronics history

Sijme pulls out a demonstration object. “I bought this when I forgot the original one at home while traveling.” It’s a third party iPhone cable that was used for only a few days. “You can clearly see how crooked it is.” Visible through the plastic mantle are little bends, which indicate sites where the cable might potentially break. Sijme later sends me a photo which shows the original cable next to the cheap third-party one. “They probably used cheap material, for example low-grade copper” Sijme explains and adds: “The quality users perceive can be different than the actual quality they receive.” This example also highlights a point that most of us understand intuitively, but it’s worth remembering: durability can be influenced by the choice of material. And the material is decided during the design stage.

consumer electronics industry history

However, poor product quality usually isn’t intentional. Poor designs, use of poor material, or poor manufacturing are consequences of enormous financial pressure. Manufacturers must lower prices to remain competitive within the market and the quality is what suffers first. In the end, it’s the consumer’s choice, whether the cheaper or the better quality products prevail.

Meanwhile, most consumers don’t know much about the actual material composition of a product. Especially when it comes to electronic devices, most consumers are not able to distinguish between high and low quality material. Moreover, most of the key components are hidden inside the product’s body. How could Sijme have known that the cable was made with poor material? The price might have been an indication, but how do you know whether something is just adequately priced or hopelessly overpriced, as some brands are?

What makes the situation even trickier is that designers are able to influence the user’s perception of the product’s quality without actually using material of a higher quality. Sijme reflects on a project he and fellow students did together with a Dutch company. They prepared a life cycle assessment of an alarm clock. For this purpose they completely disassembled the device and examined its interior. What they found were metal coil transformers which accounted for much of the item’s weight. Sijme knows from experience that much lighter transformers exist. However, in the case of this device, the weight might also contribute to a user’s perception of quality. Sijme explains that when you pick up one of those alarm clocks, you will perceive it as a quality product, even when all you feel is excess weight.

Altering perceptions and seduction aren’t concepts invented by humans. They are at play everywhere in nature. Flowers, for example, attract insects and birds with alluring smells and bright colors. While consuming the nectar of different specimen, these animals pollinate the flowers and contribute to the plant’s survival. It’s a give and take.

Our economy works much the same symbiotic way. Companies offer attractive products, consumers spend money, and the revenue is invested into producing new products. Production creates employment, i.e. an opportunity for consumers to earn a living and purchase the next generation of products. The problem with this complex cycle is that it has many appendages that are dead ends and the resulting problems are accumulating.

Designing to Meet Human Needs

A few days after interviewing Sijme, I get to speak with Karl* an Industrial Designer who teaches at a small university in the US. Karl has had a moving career, which took him overseas to study design and begin working for a foreign company.

He remembers that everything he learned from his favorite professors was focused on quality. “Fashion and design seduction were frowned upon.” He still believes that quality never goes out of style. “People might pursue quality because things can continue being useful for a longer time with obvious reductions in ecological impact.” Karl refuses to believe in planned obsolescence, but he notes: “Humans can be fickle and defining ‘quality’ is definitely a more complex challenge now.

In the early 1980s Karl began working for a small design company that had earned international recognition throughout the 1970s. When Karl joined them, they had just been signed to do exclusive work for an influential electronic manufacturer.

Karl fondly remembers this time: “When coming to work, it was like there was a big piece of design cake waiting on my desk every day. It was the most exciting, engaging, and demanding time of my professional career. I truly treasure those design experiences.” But after five years of designing the latest and fanciest products, Karl had growing questions. He started wondering who was using all the products he was designing, how they were being used, where the materials came from, and where they eventually ended up. He calls these critical insights his golden steps towards beginning to understand the concept of sustainability.

Several “Aha!” moments contributed to his mind shift. Back then, Karl enjoyed visiting thrift stores for fun and research as a young designer. He shares that on one such visit, he spotted a big cardboard box in the electronics section; it was labeled ‘10 for $1′. Curious what might be sold off this cheaply, he peeked in. To his horror, he discovered a collection of keyboards that he had designed just a year and a half earlier. Karl chuckles. “Those were the lucky ones. The not-so-lucky ones probably ended up in the landfill.

consumer electronics industry history
Image Credits: Greenpeace

Filled with deepening questions about industrial design, Karl went in search of answers. He found that the majority of designers back then didn’t think often about recycling. Their main design priorities were solving questions of material performance, function, and aesthetics. Karl says he truly believes that everyone was just trying to create the best product possible, thinking it would be there forever and like him, they were shocked when it wasn’t so.

Many discussions revolve around the motives of companies. Is there anyone we can blame for waste and bad products? Are companies taking advantage of everything in the name of profit? Is this all a big conspiracy? Karl has come to the conclusion that companies are not inherently evil: “No, I don’t think they are trying to steal from or hurt people or the planet. They are just trying to meet their own and others’ human needs.” Their purpose is to create products that customers want and secure the jobs of their employees. And after all, it’s the consumers who keep the wheels in this complex system spinning.

Today Karl teaches at a university that focuses on user-centered design. Students are taught to think about the user first, to research users’ needs extensively, observe them respectfully, (attempt to) understand their behavior, and then try to satisfy the needs of that behavior through various design options, including products, services, and systems. Thoughts about creating desire or looking only at profits are discouraged. The promise is that focusing on the user and all their needs (social, economic, environmental) will generate more than enough business, while other approaches are more risky, especially for society and the planet as a whole.

The Changing Consumer Electronics Market

The pressure for economic survival and the desire to succeed in the market, fuel the creativity of all industries. Companies vigorously compete for customer shares and try to appeal to consumers with ever new features. Knowing that in the end consumption decides what products prevail, engineers and designers are aiming to meet consumer demands.

Steve Jobs was right when he said people don’t necessarily know what they want. However, we – the people – do know what we struggle with! We adopt certain behaviors or put up with something because that’s the only way we know. But it doesn’t mean that it is the only way to solve the task. The role of designers should be to observe what people do, find a smarter solution, and hope that it catches on.

consumer electronics industry history
Image credits: Boy with Apple via Shutterstock

Let’s take smartphones and laptops for example. Switching from one device to the next is a big obstacle for most people, much due to the difficulty of migrating personal preferences and data. What has partially solved this challenge is the rise of Cloud-based services and improved synchronization tools, aided by the availability of cheap server space and Internet bandwidth. It’s a creative solution for a simple challenge.

Over the past few years, consumers have been entering a paradigm shift. We are slowly migrating from owning and managing original copies of software and data, to merely using or renting a service that provides all the features we need. Who needs Office, when they can use Google Drive? Who wants to buy a CD, when they can listen to the band’s entire music collection on Spotify? Why use a thumb drive, if you can seamlessly share data with Dropbox? Who will bother with backups to an external hard drive, if data can be stored in the Cloud? Besides, Cloud-based software updates automatically. Moreover, the Cloud won’t break and lose your data; at least that’s the promise.

When switching to a new device today, you hardly notice the transition. All your data are already there, magically synced from the Cloud. Instead of breaking your head over old software registration keys or restoring backups, you can instantly enjoy the new hardware and learn to use novel features.

consumer electronics industry
Image credits: Cloud Computing via Shutterstock

As we get used to having access to personal data anywhere and no longer fear losing precious information if our device breaks, we slowly weaken the emotional attachment to the physical devices through which we access our data. What previously worked a little like a technological Stockholm Syndrome – devices took hostage of our data and forced us to take good care of them, creating this intimate and unhealthy relationship – is now evolving into a throw-away mentality. Oh damn, my phone has a scratch. Next!

Norbert Storch, manager of a recycling company in Berlin, is extremely critical of these developments. In his view, electronic devices have turned from useful tools into toys. “Gadgets are designed for consumption with no regard to quality.” You might wonder though whether this is a conscious development steered by manufacturers or whether they are merely following the market, i.e. a changing user behavior.

“People just want to rid themselves of their trash. They have lost their sense of ownership.” This loss goes hand in hand with no longer feeling responsible for possessions. “Why do we still find TVs trashed in the forest?” Storch wonders and points out the many publicly available and free recycling systems. There will always be reckless individuals. However, if the majority of people act irresponsibly, it raises the question whether the respective systems were developed with the end user or even the whole system in mind.

consumer electronics industry
Image credits: Discarded Television via Shutterstock

Challenges of a Throw-Away Mentality

Fully synced Cloud-based services have made it a breeze to switch between devices, but also to let a new toy into your life. New hardware promises to be faster, offers more features, and happens to be in fashion. What’s not to like? As long as all our information and memories are easily transferred, we feel comfortable and safe. What could make a device more familiar and personal than our own data?

In a way, this is a positive development since we become more independent of physical objects. It makes life easier, more flexible, and with data being available anywhere also creates a sense of safety. On the other hand it causes a host of other issues in the short term.

  • We desire better and faster devices that can do more:
    • consumerist behavior continues its steep rise
    • electronic devices are replaced more quickly
    • devices are retired before they break
    • turnover rates force manufacturers to focus on fast and cheap production
    • quality is no longer a priority
  • Electronics aren’t produced from thin air:
    • resource extraction takes its toll on the environment
    • natural resources are being depleted
  • Discarded devices are eventually trashed:
    • old consumer electronics amount to mountains of waste every year
    • electronics generally contain poisonous materials that could leak into the environment
    • electronics also contain a lot of rare and precious metals that are more economic to recapture than to extract from their extremely limited virgin sources
    • electronic waste is difficult to recycle

Let me give you a taste of what the consequences of our behavior are.

End of Life – Yesterday’s Treasure is Tomorrow’s Trash

Gadgets die, become obsolete, or simply outdated. Worldwide, an estimated 50 million metric tons of electronic waste are generated every year. The US alone contributes over 3 million tons and Europe, with more than two times the population of the US, chips in up to 7 million tons. The trend for these numbers points up steeply. In Europe, an additional 3-5% of electronic waste is generated every year and countries in South America, Asia, and Africa are rapidly catching up.

consumer electronics industry

The Digital Dump Infographic via GOOD

Mobile phones have the highest turnover rate among consumer electronic devices, with the average user obtaining a new phone approximately every 18 months. If not given to someone else, the discarded phones often land in a drawer until they are eventually tossed out and go to the landfill. This is a huge loss to the economy as 100,000 cell phones contain approximately 2.4 kilograms of gold, more than 900 kilograms of copper, and 25 kilograms of silver, among other valuable materials. This amounts to over a quarter million US Dollars worth of metals.

Scarcity of Resources

Finite resources are only half the problem, but at this point they are at the center of all our problems. Electronics in particular are made up of a host of rare and precious materials. A mobile phone for example contains up to 60 different elements and is made up of roughly 40 percent metals, 40 percent plastics, and 20 percent ceramics and trace materials. A cell phone’s circuit board contains aluminum, beryllium, copper, gold, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc. All of these materials are more or less difficult to mine, some are hazardous, and most are valuable.

Indium, for example, is used to create transparent electrodes in LCDs and touch screens. It is extracted as a side product mainly during zinc production. Between 2002 and today its price has risen from US$94 per kg to almost US$1,000 per kg. Indium supplies are dwindling away rapidly. Based on current rates of extraction, resources will last for about 20 years. In 2010, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that the recycling rate for Indium was only around 1%. Imagine a smartphone without a touch screen or a laptop without a flat screen.

All high-tech gadgets depend on rare metals. And although a set of 17 key elements of the modern electronics industry are called rare earth metals, almost all of them are found in abundance. However, they are rarely found in concentrated ores and are thus difficult to extract. This limits the speed at which they can be extracted. Subsequently, the growing demand is predicted to exceed the limited supply in a few years from now.

Supply shortages and reduced exports from China are pushing up the prices, not even taking into account the long-term environmental costs caused by mining. The extraction of rare earth metals for example creates radioactive slurry tailings and the refining process depends on the addition of toxic acids. This hazardous waste poses not only an environmental, but also a significant health risk for workers and the community. Unfortunately, the past has proven Murphy’s Law to be highly accurate: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

While China is the main supplier of rare earth elements, 13 million metric tons of this natural resource can be found in the US. Meanwhile, China is addressing the serious environmental consequences and is closing illegal mines. To serve the increasing demand, new sources are being developed worldwide. Even sites of production that were abandoned years ago are re-opened. The Mountain Pass Mine in California for example closed its gates in 2002 but resumed its operations in August 2012. Mining in the US has become profitable again.


Image credits: Open Pit Mine via Shutterstock

Toxic Waste

With the source materials and how they are produced in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that end products such as electronic devices themselves contain highly hazardous substances. Plastic casings for example are treated with chemicals that prevent the material from catching fire (i.e. brominated flame retardants). Many more substances contained in electronic devices are known to be persistent and toxic. Moreover, many accumulate in organisms, including humans, leading to serious health issues. This includes lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, phthalates, and hexavalent chromium. All of them are released over time and pose a significant threat to the environment and human health in particular.

Waste is a concept only known to humans. And we yet have to find ways to deal with waste responsibly. Until a few years ago, developed countries routinely exported electronic trash to countries in Asia and Africa. These countries still lack proper waste treatment and recycling plants; the waste goes to landfills and slowly pollutes the local environment. Moreover, children and adults scout the mountains of trash for valuables, such as scrap metal, which they can sell for a meager income. To extract the last bits of precious materials, plastics and other materials are burned off, releasing toxic fumes and poisoning the air, water, soil, and thus the entire community.


Image credits: Dmitry Berkut / Shutterstock.com

An international treaty known as the Basel Convention attempted to prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. Later, regional laws were passed, including the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive in Europe or the Recycling Standard R2 in the US, which force manufacturers to ensure the collection and recycling of their products. As a result, recycling rates have slowly been increasing. However, recycling is still lagging behind and meanwhile electronic waste is still sent to Asia and Africa. European exports are falsely labeled as second hand and since the US never ratified the Basel Convention, their exports of electronic waste are in fact legal.

Regulations and laws are powerful tools to direct change and development. However, they often lag behind or fail to address the full scope of reality. Developing countries are rapidly adopting the Western lifestyle. Within this decade they will produce more electronic waste than their role models and twice as much by 2025. Policy makers need to act quickly to direct both product design and recycling practices in the right direction.

Recycling of Electronic Waste As a Business

Given the scarcity of resources and the legal implications, recycling of electronic waste has the potential to be a profitable business. Improving access and availability of rare materials through recycling is potentially easier than exploiting virgin resources. Moreover, harmful substances can be kept in a closed loop, thus preventing them from leaking into the environment.

I gain my first insights into recycling at a recycling plant in southern Sweden. It’s a bleak November afternoon as we arrive at the plant. Following a friendly welcome, we are guided into the workshop. We pass dozens of large containers, filled with any type of consumer electronic you can imagine. They originate from households in the region. We observe workers with face masks who take apart computers and TVs. At one of the stops we see a pile of old hard drives next to desktop computers waiting to be disassembled. Conveyor belts transport separated parts to the outside, where they land on mountains of trash or in containers, lined up to be transported to another plant for further processing.

After a few stops, we gather around some smaller containers, filled with discarded mobile phones. We are allowed to rummage through the piles and inspect the devices. Many look perfectly fine, hardly used, and without visible damage. The most common fault seems to be a smashed screen and with some of the more expensive models you can only imagine the owner’s frustration.

Our guide takes an old fashioned folding phone and breaks it apart. We are shocked. Laughingly he encourages us to find one and try it. “It’s stress relief” he says. I can barely bring myself to do it.

electronics recycling
Image credits: Trashed Phones via Shutterstock

Recycling is a very complicated and crude process. Since electronic devices are made up of dozens of different materials, all with unique chemical properties and environmental or health hazards, it is almost impossible to recycle them without first disassembling them into their components and separate fractions of more or less known materials.

To get a better understanding of what the challenges are, I visit another recycling company in Berlin, Germany. The website reveals they draw inspiration from Agenda 21, the United Nation’s action plan for sustainable development. The original idea was to match refurbished electronics with users who are satisfied with the performance those devices offer. The business assumption was that costs for disposal would drop since devices would yield a profit when sold to a consumer. From the start, however, the company was also concerned with actually recycling electronic waste and developing technologies to do so. This earned them the 1st European Recycling Award in 1995.

I meet with Dr. Hendrik Böhme, founder of the company. Today they recycle electronic waste from industrial sources, predominantly computing devices and office technology, but also medical technology.

electronics recycling
Image credits: Dr. Hendrik Böhme, Electronic Waste as Carrier of Values and Resources, TU Berlin, 1999

When I ask Dr. Böhme about the business with used electronics, he states it is no longer of interest. He says most of his previous customers can no longer afford refurbished devices. However, I suspect the decline in prices has also contributed to a decline in value of used electronics. Later he explains about the risk associated with dealing in second-hand goods. The company has to extend warranty, but particularly with computers many parts are fragile, prone to damage, and you don’t know how they were treated by previous owners. Warranty-related expenditures quickly exceed the value of the devices, rendering the business unprofitable. One viable alternative Dr. Böhme offers in order to utilize the full lifetime of used electronics is to donate them, for example to schools in developing countries.

I want to learn more about the recycling process. Dr. Böhme explains that recycling requires separation of material fractions, to avoid mixtures that later cannot be separated. This involves a lot of manual labor. Manpower is expensive and many companies work with handicapped people. The advantage is that nearly the entire material of a device is fed into the recycling loop and almost nothing is discarded. The material fractions are handed off to other companies that further separate the fractions and recapture materials in specialized plants.

Manufacturers consciously undermine the ability to service and retrofit devices. Many devices are deliberately constructed to break after a few years. In the process of recycling, one often notices this when for an entire series, one knows exactly what needs to be done, to bring this device back to life.” – Dr. Hendrik Böhme

As an example Dr. Böhme offers a computer terminal they have been repairing. The power button sits at the tip of a thinly elongated conductor board. Every time the button is pressed, the board bends slightly. After around three years of regular use, the button breaks off. Whenever the company received this terminal, this was the only fault, rendering the machine useless for the end user. Dr. Böhme speculates that a simple plastic strip could have stiffened the conductor board, stabilized the button, and prevented the damage. Moreover, the manufacturer used screws with flat heads to prevent opening of the device.

They don’t want devices to be repaired. When faulty, then discard and buy new. It gets ever worse.” I ask whether he can foresee a change in the future. He negates. “There was an euphoria in the 90s to think with recycling in mind. But somehow they passed the buck to the recycling industry, saying ‘figure out how to recapture the stuff’.” – Dr. Hendrik Böhme

He takes a partly disassembled tablet from one of the piles and points to the screen. He complains about the glues that make it almost impossible to strip the piece down and process it for recycling. He also objects to the mix of black and white plastics, that can’t even be seen when the device is fully assembled. The result of this design is that recycling becomes more energy intensive and expensive.

electronics recycling
Image credits: Broken Tablet via Shutterstock

Presently, manufacturers are slow to use recycled materials in their products. While quality, purity, and thus reliability of these materials may be one issue, price still is a deciding factor. Despite increased demand and a steep rise in prices for natural resources, the mining and production of copper, for example, remains cheaper than the recycling alternative.

Dr. Böhme says recycling could be a lot cheaper, if manufacturers designed their product with recycling in mind. He bemoans that the WEEE Directive’s take-back-system didn’t encourage manufacturers to work more economic and ecologic. He says the regulations failed because manufacturers are not forced to address the end-of-life of their products. Instead the recycling industry gets funded to clear mountains of trash, which is the most economic approach for manufacturers.

Recycling of mass-produced consumer electronic devices is a relatively new field. Recyclers are faced with a multitude of materials. On the one hand, the challenge is to develop processes for extracting raw materials from an unknown and complex mixture. In many countries this is complicated by complex regulations and laws. On the other hand, they are working with components whose effects on humans and the environment are not well understood. Recycling companies carry a huge responsibility which should lie with the manufacturers.

Dr. Böhme wishes policy makers would influence manufacturers to accept their responsibility. However, he remains pessimistic. From his perspective, economic concerns continue to trump social and ecological consequences. He states that companies and countries go to any length to obtain cheap natural resources, be it the exploitation of poorer countries or war. In this light it seems like a blessing that resources are declining and recycling becomes profitable.

Conclusions

The Future of Recycling

The rapid turnover of electronics and the expansion of markets in developing countries lead to ever more waste and growing demands for resources. Thus prices for raw materials will continue their steep rise. Consequently, the recycling of electronic waste will gain importance as it becomes increasingly profitable. And it will be indispensable once natural resources have been depleted or their exploitation becomes economically less viable than recycling.

Ecologically, it’s a nightmare that we are not yet able to feed our increasing hunger for resources by means other than mining. The damages we are causing to the environment and human society are huge and largely irreversible for many generations to come.

Economically, we are in the semi-comfortable situation that the recycling industry is maturing during a time when we don’t yet depend on it as a resource. Unless our consumption habits change, however, the industry will proceed not only to recycle everyday waste, but will also recycle waste from over 200 years of industrialization. The landfills of today are the mines of the future.

Urban Mining Infographic via Mining.com

Urban mining may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. This industry is driven by massive shortages in natural resources. Landfills in Japan, for example, contain more than double the gold, silver, indium, and platinum the entire world consumes per year. Moreover, many countries are running out of landfill space. At current rates, the UK will have to look for alternatives by 2018. Meanwhile, the first landfill mine is being established in Belgium by 2014. Mother Nature forces us to deal with our trash, one way and the other.

The Future of Consumption

There are many signs that our behavior is changing. The Internet has helped the sharing mentality to go mainstream and turn into what is now called The Sharing Economy. Services like Napster or Kazaa made peer-to-peer file sharing famous. Although this kind of sharing violates copyrights, the industry eventually caught on and provided their customers with many other ways of sharing online, not least via social networks.

As mentioned earlier, the desire to own original copies of music or software is declining . With services like Spotify we are trading the luxury of buying music for the comfort of having any music we like available to us anytime. As we learn that it is not necessary to own a particular item, we are progressively losing our attachment to physical objects.

These changes do cause many issues in the short term, but they also offer hope. We are transitioning through a phase of rapid technological evolution. Today, we are producing technological devices that are infinitely more powerful and produced with only a fraction of the material, compared to comparable devices from a few years ago. A smartphone for example unites what used to take three or more devices: telephone, camera, text messaging, Internet browsing, watching TV, and more. This progress of packing more functions into ever more compact gadgets continues. The hope is that in the future we will be able to produce more devices and serve the growing market with much less resources.


Image credits: TopCultured

Doing more with less alone won’t solve our problems. As discussed previously, our consumption habits are shifting from owning towards using. We do desire to have the latest of every device and service, but we are no longer focused on calling it our own. We rent apartments, lease cars, pay for mobile contracts that offer a new phone every two years, and buy monthly music subscriptions. These examples are only the beginning. A trend is manifesting: we are slowly letting go of physical status symbols.

Instead of defining who we are by what we own, we are transitioning to other types of status. We are beginning to define ourselves by how we interact (social networks), what we know (self education), and what we can do (entrepreneurship). We are in the middle of the social-technological revolution. This, however, is a story of its own.

The drivers behind this phenomenon are service design and product service systems (PSS). The primary aim when designing a new product is to meet the user’s needs, as opposed to stimulating new needs and consumption with the aim to make profit (e.g. soft drinks). In addition, companies design flexible services that revolve around this product. Xerox was one of the first companies to succeed with this model. Instead of selling copy machines, they started selling the copies, meaning they provided the devices and charged users for the service of using them. Likewise, many car companies no longer just manufacture automobiles, but also develop car sharing systems. The user’s advantage with these service systems is that they are guaranteed a fully functional device. The company on the other hand is responsible for keeping it up to date and running. Subsequently, companies will also be responsible for recycling products or parts at their end-of-life, naturally encouraging them to make this as efficient as possible.

The Future of Waste

Right now, we are learning to make the most of resources, including our waste. The goal is to not let anything be thought of as waste, but to re-use and recycle everything, just like it’s done in nature. Many companies have started to mimic nature in their product design. One approach to guide these designs is called ‘Cradle to Cradle’.

[Cradle to Cradle] models human industry on nature’s processes viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining a safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and technical nutrients. Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste free. – Wikipedia, 2012

In a Forbes interview the co-founder of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach said:

“We see all materials as nutrients and eliminate the concept of waste. We’re saying, “Don’t even think about waste; waste doesn’t exist.” How can we make everything a beneficial nutrient to either biology or technology?” – William McDonough

In other words, waste will be recognized as a resource, meaning the concept of waste has no future.

Our Future

Our future hasn’t yet been decided; we are creating it every day. Nobody has figured this world out; neither nature nor humans are predictable and hence they are uncontrollable. In a sense, we are blindfolded and oblivious to the consequences of our actions. And like Karl, I believe that deep inside, everyone just wants to live a better life and contribute to a better world. In other words, not a single person is to blame for the mess we’re in.

I’m optimistic that everyone is trying to create a better tomorrow, maybe without full understanding of how. We have to create tomorrow without jeopardizing the day after tomorrow.” – Karl, Industrial Designer

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t a value in exposing the wrong-doings of individuals or organizations. After all, where would we be today without the tireless efforts from organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, or Amnesty International? Think of their methods what you want, but you will have to agree with me in one point: They have done groundbreaking work with putting deep social and environmental issues into the center of public attention. Broad public awareness is a key to building sufficient leverage, lay pressure on decision makers, and move something.


Image credits: Greenpeace International

However, while creating awareness is extremely important in creating a better world, I believe we also have to approach issues with empathy. Instead of simply pointing a finger, creating frustration, and shifting the responsibility onto someone else, we need to contribute to the solution; all of us.

Companies depend on us as customers. When we vote with our Dollars, they are forced to listen. So try to make conscious decisions when you consume. Buy local, spend money on quality, get informed and support companies that are socially and ecologically aware and produce accordingly, recycle your waste, and most of all, raise tough questions. Not only will it help you to reflect and learn, it will force others to think, and it might just inspire them to re-think their behavior.

Buckminster Fuller, an American architect and systems theorist of the 20th century, liked to call this planet Spaceship Earth. You could also call it an over-sized Noah’s Ark; a big boat floating in the universe, and we’re all in it together. What happens in another part of the world affects all of us, the bad and the good. Let’s focus on the good and steer the ship into calmer waters. What are your optimistic and hopeful visions for the future?

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” – John Lennon


Image credits: Planet Earth Sunrise via Shutterstock

Epilogue

My own broken laptop will not be replaced, yet. I have completed this article on it. First, I attached the body to an external monitor, eventually removed the broken display, and meanwhile ordered a replacement LCD and repaired the laptop myself. Fortunately, the manufacturer has decided to use screws and plastic clips, rather than glue for the bezel. The design of the device makes it very easy to replace broken hardware and the replacement LCD was affordable. Thank you Sony!

* name changed
Image credits: Green Earth Recycle via Shutterstock

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Comments (128)
  • Dariusz

    Hello sorry for break. “What do you consider to be the products that create the most pollution?” most the old building materials like for example lead pipes paints asbestos this without good removal cause such pollution (thanks, now we are more aware of this problem), also check China air pollution(from industrialisation Europa US has this problem in XX century) this is most reason of such problem. E-waste is small % of all sources of pollution

  • Dariusz

    Here I must agree with you, but you also miss my point, i dont say “dont worry and create more e-waste” but rather focus on the products which creates the most pollution and remove the biggest source. P.S I aware about this problem and want that products like modular electronics decrease electronics waste.

    • Tina

      I’m glad we could find some common ground.

      What do you consider to be the products that create the most pollution?

      And how is e-waste creating such massive issues in Asian and African countries a lesser issue?

  • Dariusz

    “Where and over what time period were those studies done that show that levels of heavy metals in human blood samples decline?” around world. “Plenty of studies look at concentrations of heavy metals, e.g. in hair samples and umbilical cord blood in affected areas in Asia and Africa, i.e. around sites where e-waste is deposited or processed, and their results are alarming. ” really and its caused by e-waste? not for example mining and industrialisation? “Did you know that Autism can be caused by exposure to lead and mercury? Autism has not been declining.” from this study you claim that heavy metals cause autism? first this is epidemiological study and correlation does not imply causation, secont they have only 45 children, third for example mercury toxicity manifest in motor problems ataxia etc.

    • Tina

      Dariusz, I think you’re missing the point of this article. So let’s start over…

      In terms of toxicity, I agree that electronic devices are mostly safe for everyday use (as long as they don’t start burning). I agree that people like you and me are generally less exposed to harmful heavy metals like lead and other toxins than people were in the past.

      I think we can also agree that electronic devices do contain toxic substances, including heavy metals, flame retardants in the plastics, etc. It’s not a question of concentration. They just contain them. Agreed?

      The point of this article is that our consumption habits are increasingly causing issues. One is the amount of waste we’re producing.

      In this article, I’m focusing on electronics, including electronic waste. The increasing amounts of electronic waste produced the world over are largely being deported to countries in Asia and Africa. Here those toxic substances either leak into the environment or people (including children) try to extract (“recycle”) valuable materials including metals, in ways that release the toxic substances into the environment.
      E-waste: an assessment of global production and environmental impacts.
      Handling e-waste in developed and developing countries: initiatives, practices, and consequences.
      Heavy metal contamination of soil and water in the vicinity of an abandoned e-waste recycling site: implications for dissemination of heavy metals.
      A systematic review of the human body burden of e-waste exposure in China.

      As a toxicologist, you understand better than anyone what this means for workers at and people in the vicinity of these “recycling plants”. Yes, it’s a regional issue and it doesn’t affect the majority of people. But everyone who buys and discards electronic devices potentially contributes to the issue. More consumption, more waste, more pollution.

      You wrote: “really and its caused by e-waste? not for example mining and industrialisation?”
      Yes, those studies were performed around sites affected by electronic waste disposal. To my knowledge, the only thing people are mining in those areas is scrap metal from piles of electronic waste. And yes, it can also bbe caused by mining, you can find plenty of studies examining both. Now let’s not forget that mining is the first step in obtaining the materials needed to produce electronics that then end up as waste. So again more consumption leads to more pollution.

      What do you think industrialization is?

  • Dariusz

    ” Comparison to ancient times or other materials is irrelevant.” no? so that ancient times have more amount of toxic wase products is irrelevant? “hat matters is the amount that is eventually washed into our soil and groundwater and that’s a lot.” and even with increased amount of electronics the amount is decline. “Each piece may only leak a tiny amount, but it all adds up. And yes, other waste is bad, too.” you miss the point, I mean that compared to even 30 years ago products contain far less more toxic materials then conclusion new electronics do not contribute to toxic waste as products from past. BTW Im toxicologist so I also interest in this topic. Look at studies which show that lvl of for example lead and mercury decline in human blood.

    • Tina

      Where and over what time period were those studies done that show that levels of heavy metals in human blood samples decline?

      And where are we exporting our electronic waste to?

      Plenty of studies look at concentrations of heavy metals, e.g. in hair samples and umbilical cord blood in affected areas in Asia and Africa, i.e. around sites where e-waste is deposited or processed, and their results are alarming. Maybe it’s just a regional problem, but it’s our consumption that is causing it and we’re not taking responsibility for it.

      Did you know that Autism can be caused by exposure to lead and mercury? Autism has not been declining.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25461563

  • Dariusz

    Please check what you wrote. Toxic materials in electronics are lower that in other materials, Toxins aluminum, beryllium, copper, gold, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc are used from ancient Roman empire in dose 100 and more time greater than in computer. So claming that electronics cause toxic waste is incompetent because is low percent of other materials.

    • Tina

      The exact amount contained within electronic doesn’t matter. What matters is the amount that is eventually washed into our soil and groundwater and that’s a lot. Comparison to ancient times or other materials is irrelevant. Fact is, we’re literally producing tons of electronic waste every single day and the stuff leaks toxins into the environment. Each piece may only leak a tiny amount, but it all adds up. And yes, other waste is bad, too.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.